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Tribal Justice Collaborative

The vision of the Tribal Justice Collaborative (TJC) is to establish a collaborative network of Judicial champions and allies for ICWA implementation in California that is an authentic resource for Indian children and families in care.

This is achieved through regional and statewide teams dedicated to improving outcomes for Native children and families in care. The centerpiece of these efforts are annual judicial gatherings. 

The Tribal Justice Collaborative is guided by a judicial advisory, whose goal is to improve outcomes for tribal children and families by promoting best practices for courts and child serving agencies.


By Hon. Abby Abinanti

California is uniquely positioned to lead the nation in efforts to establish partnerships between State and Tribal nations. As a P.L. 280 state we have the benefit of concurrent jurisdiction which can and should be interpreted as the foundation for joint jurisdiction efforts in confronting the disproportionality of the foster care system as it seeks to aid tribal families in our State. Our State’s Tribal population has been supplemented by those tribal people who were relocated by the Federal government and left to us to care for with little or no aid. The result is we now have the largest population of tribal people of any state in the union.


Our work together can and should stand for our best justice qualities, equality and fairness, and how to partner in community to achieve the best results for our families.


The best possible solution is for the justice system experts of the Tribes and this great State to combine resources in specialty/collaborative court models including joint courts to provide the maximum assistance to our tribal residents who have too often been viewed as disposable or as a resource to be utilized to fill non-tribal needs/desires. The Indian Child Welfare Act was a response to the overreaching of a system that should have helped those in need and instead stole the future of our Tribes, our children.

Our History

In San Diego, Juvenile Judge Napoleon Jones (1982-1994) was the first judge to recognize the standing of tribes and tribal representatives/advocates in child welfare cases with Indian children. After the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) passed in 1978 Indian service programs and tribal social service programs serving the needs of Native children and families began to assert the need for state and county child welfare workers to follow the provisions of ICWA. In response San Diego established a Tribal Liaison position in 1984 and an Indian Specialty Unit in 1992. Relationships were strengthened by tribal tours of the reservations so that judges and attorneys could better understand challenges faced by families when entering the child welfare system. A video covering the History of the of the Indian Specialty Unit in San Diego, California is available on YouTube.

In 2003 the Academy for Professional Excellence, SDSU School of Social Work received a grant to improve outcomes of Native rural foster youth in transition through training and technical assistance. This effort became Tribal STAR (Successful Transitions for Adult Readiness) which promoted collaboration among all systems providing services to Native children in foster care. By 2009 Tribal STAR had begun providing training on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Tribal STAR was staffed by two part time positions that were held by tribal community members who were also involved in the California Breakthrough Series Collaborative to address disproportionality led by Casey Family Programs. This team was also part of the Native American Communities Justice Project led by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The centerpiece of collaboration between the courts and tribes is the annual Judges’ Dinner.  Each year the dinners provide an opportunity to illuminate best practices in collaboration, ICWA implementation within the courts, and acknowledge champions who serve Native families.  In 2012 the first Judges’ Dinner was held in San Diego with an intention to build collaboration among the courts, tribes, and child welfare services to improve outcomes for Native children and families. In 2013 a Judicial Advisory was established to provide guidance and outreach. In 2018 the Tribal Justice Collaborative was established to continue building communities committed to improving outcomes together. In 2019 the collaborative model was spread to Northern California with an Inaugural Judges’ Dinner in the bay area on October 3, 2019.

Our Outcomes

  • Changes in court practices occurred as a result of the very first dinner.

  • Improved placement

  • Improved engagement with tribes

  • Improved outcomes for Native children

  • A network of champions

Our Judicial Advisors

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